SHAWINIGAN, QUE. - Are the Edmonton Oil Kings being cheated out of an exceptional Memorial Cup experience?
Did they win a trip to the Memorial Cup and end up where there's no there there?
There's a great Memorial Cup experience to be had here. But the WHL champions are not here. They're 35 minutes away. In Trois-Rivieres.
In Shawinigan, the home of 49,161 citizens who call the place "Electric City," exists a tremendous testimonial to the concept that the Memorial Cup belongs in real junior hockey towns with junior hockey-sized populations and junior hockey-sized arenas, not a place where it can get lost like last year in Mississauga.
Only trouble is that the two non-QMJHL teams, the Oil Kings and London Knights, aren't here.
Due to a severe shortage of hotel rooms in the host city, they have to get on a bus for a 35-minute trip to and from practices and games. Trois-Rivieres proper is actually slightly closer than that but the Oil Kings' hotel is located on the other side of the St. Lawrence.
Shawinigan has totally embraced the Memorial Cup. You can't go anywhere here without seeing, touching and feeling the 94th edition of the Canadian junior hockey classic.
Banners hang from hundreds of mostly wooden telephone poles. Event posters featuring Montreal Canadiens legend and Quebec Remparts Memorial Cup winner (against the Edmonton Oil Kings in 1971) Guy Lafleur, with current Shawinigan Cataractes star Michael Bournival, a local product drafted by the Habs, decorate hotel lobbies and bars. Dozens are arranged artistically or slap-happily to fill store-front windows and are plastered to the front of entire buildings. Restaurants have Memorial Cup logo flags on every table.
It's a scene to behold. Oil Kings coach Derek Laxdal gave his team two hours after practice Sunday to roam the downtown and savor the scene as best they could before getting back on the bus to Trois-Rivieres.
Shawinigan, for the purpose of setting the scene, is an Algonquin word meaning "portage on the ridge." There's a 50-metre high waterfall, which inspired several power plants here which made this the first city in all of Quebec to have public electric lighting. And it is, indeed, electric.
Downtown is essentially comprised of three main streets, featuring portable poutine chalets with a massive Festival des Fans tent in the centre of it all. Kind of a downtown Brier Patch to watch the games and enjoy excellent and/or unusual post-game entertainment on stage after the games, including a French honky tonk band Saturday night.
The three-year-old, 4,100-seat Centre Bionest has a collection of hospitality tents where fans are gathered for themed experiences each day for three hours before game time. Sunday evening's festivities featured "lively western animation, music and a mechanical bull."
Festival Western de St-Tite, a rodeo and country and western event, will hold its 45th edition Sept. 7-16 this year and sponsored "Western Weekend" to launch the Memorial Cup.
A block away is the 2,504-seat Arena Jacques Plante, built in 1937 and virtually unchanged since it opened as the Memorial Arena, which was the oldest arena in the QMJHL when it was closed in 2008.
The old rink, complete with uncomfortable wooden seats, iron pillars blocking views, dirt and grime everywhere, was regarded by old-timers as one of the most quirky, yet strangely lovable, hockey rinks in Canadian history. It was a nice touch to locate the accreditation centre there, where the host franchise was born as a founding member of the QMJHL in 1969 and is the only team to operate continuously in the same city since then.
The name, Cataractes, literally translates to "Waterfalls," although they chose to go with a caricature of an Indian chief on the uniform and with a colorful Youppi-like (ex-Montreal Expos, now Canadiens) mascot with the name bar "Thomas Hawk" (Tommy Hawk, get it?) on the back of his jersey. Yup. In 2012.
At the bottom of Rue Principal is the waterfront and Hockeytown at Espace Shawinigan, where a special Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit similar to the one created in Quebec City for Rendezvous '87 has been set up with interactive games. Sunday was highlighted by an autograph session featuring over 100 Cataractes alumni. On other days, it will be Canadiens legends such as Lafleur, Yvon Cournoyer, Bobby Rousseau, Yvon Lambert, Jean-Guy Talbot, Andrť Pronovost and many more. The highlight is an appearance by the Stanley Cup itself.
And there's also the opportunity to get yourself a "Shawinigan Handshake."
Former PM Jean Chretien, a native son, is featured on the label of a local beer by that name celebrating the famous photo of him grabbing protester Bill Clennett by the throat in 1996. The move was dubbed the Shawinigan handshake.
Hockey Night In Canada's Don Cherry, who publicly supported Chretien for going after the guy, agreed to allow his likeness to appear on the label of the local micro-brewery beer, which depicts him being choked by the ex-P.M., as a special Memorial Cup bottling.
The beer, to be found only at Le Trou du Diable (The Devil's Hole) is the ultimate Memorial Cup souvenir this year.
All that is here. And the Oil Kings are there.
Are they being cheated out of all this flavour?
Or do they still feel like they're at the Memorial Cup?
"Absolutely, we feel like we're at the Memorial Cup," said captain Mark Pysyk. "First of all, it was an unbelievable environment for our first game against the Cataractes. When it comes to the rest of it, I think it's good that we're at a little bit of a distance."
Yes, the Oil Kings are seeing there locale as a positive.
"There aren't many distractions," said T.J. Foster. "It allows us to focus on our goal of winning. We don't feel the Memorial Cup atmosphere much but we have ping pong tables and Xboxes and a golf driving range with a big bucket of balls for $10 right across the street. We spent an entire afternoon in Quebec City Saturday and that was pretty cool and now we're getting a look around town in Shawinigan.
"The drive to get from Trois-Rivieres isn't that bad. It not much more than half an hour, which is time to get a little snooze in for practice. And it's about the right length to dial into the game."
The Oil Kings will make the trip Monday to play the defending tournament champion Saint John Sea Dogs and Tuesday to go against the London Knights.
"That's about what it takes to get from home to the rink," offered Keegan Lowe, the son of Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, who boards Foster and Henrik Samuelsson at their West Edmonton home.
"It was good to get out and walk around Shawinigan today a bit," said Lowe.
Nobody is complaining about going from a crowd of 10,497 in Game 6 in Portland and 12,514 in Game 7 in Edmonton to the 4,100 here.
"It's packed and sounds like 10,000," said Laxdal. "There's a lot of media here and a lot of distractions. As we go further in the tournament I think it'll be a benefit to be where we're at. We're in a beautiful hotel. The food is good. We're happy where we are.
"We took the team to Quebec City to experience the culture and they've now had a look around town and the scene in Shawinigan on their own. They're young kids who need some freedom. But at the end of the day, we don't need the distractions, we don't need to be around the hoopla and the festival. We're here for a reason."
The back and forth busing can wear you down, however. And Laxdal did announce Sunday the team has canceled all morning skates to avoid taking the bus trip here twice a day.
Maybe it'll work for the Oil Kings like it did for the Canadiens in the dynasty days. They used to take the team to the Laurentians and bus in for the games to avoid the scene in Montreal during the Stanley Cup playoffs.